Tracy Sprinkle has been pumping iron a little more often and running a few extra sprints. Sure, he wants to be in peak condition for whichever NFL team lands him this weekend, but there’s another reason.
“I’ve been working out a lot, trying to take my mind off of it,” Sprinkle, the former Elyria High and Ohio State defensive lineman, told The Gazette on Tuesday. “Whatever happens is God’s plan. So I can’t really stress about it too much.”
Sprinkle is back home in Elyria for the anxious days before and during the draft, which begins Thursday night and runs through Saturday. He wasn’t invited to the scouting combine and has been largely off the radar in the vast run-up to the event but expects to hear his name called in the finals rounds Saturday.
“I’ve got faith that I get drafted,” he said, noting the communication has picked up lately and he’s heard from about half the teams in the league.
If the 6-foot-3, 293-pound defensive tackle doesn’t get drafted, he should be a priority free agent signing.
“I wouldn’t call it a setback. Just another chapter in my journey,” he said. “There have been other things I’ve gone through in my career. I haven’t been ‘that guy’ but still worked my way to the top.
“I know I’m going to have to work either way. I’m looking forward to working hard.”
A tragic loss produces its share of tough times
Sprinkle’s path to the doorstep of the NFL has been anything but smooth. When he reflects on the difficulties, he sums up his life in three words: patience, purpose and perseverance.
He said he has patience in God’s plan, and it comes from his parents, father Percy Hicks and mother Tracie Sprinkle. His purpose is his giant family, which includes 11 siblings and hosts of cousins and aunts. The perseverance is from surviving life’s obstacles.
“Me getting through those things without leaning on other people,” Sprinkle said.
He still struggles with the murder of older brother Jamelro Hicks, who was shot and killed in Cleveland in 2011 after Sprinkle’s junior season with the Pioneers. Hicks died when he was 22, so turning 23 last week meant a lot to Sprinkle.
“Losing someone so close to you, it was really hard for me,” he said. “I don’t think (the anger) ever goes away, you just have to channel it the right way. It was hard for everybody to continue on with life. We all lifted each other up with the grace of God.
“Everything I go through, I use that as motivation to keep going. I know he would want me to keep going. I look back on it a lot, because I never want his legacy to die. He’s definitely living through me.”
Sprinkle is the youngest of the seven boys and said Jamelro Hicks was always using that to push him, telling him he was going to be “the one to make it.” That pressure was just one of the issues that came with growing up in a family struggling to get by with food stamps and welfare.
“It’s kinda cool but then it’s not,” Sprinkle said of having 11 siblings. “You already have camaraderie in the house. But you’re sharing a bed with people, sharing dinner with people. I’ve been sharing stuff my whole life. But it’s pretty cool.”
Sprinkle was gifted athletically but said it took until his junior year at Elyria to begin making the most of the talent. He quickly caught the eye of the Buckeyes and headed to Columbus after 19 sacks, 30 tackles for loss and 103 tackles as a senior, earning first-team All-Ohio and co-defensive player of the year honors.
The trials and tribulations continued with the Buckeyes.
In July 2014, after redshirting as a freshman, Sprinkle was arrested outside a bar in Lorain and charged with rioting, failure to disperse, possession of drugs and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was quickly dismissed from the team by coach Urban Meyer.
Sprinkle pleaded no contest to failure to comply, and the other misdemeanor charges were dropped. He was reinstated by Meyer, but it took some convincing.
“I definitely had to prove myself,” he said.
Sprinkle said he passed drug tests and showed many of the accusations were unfounded. But he said he’ll never be completely free from the stain to his reputation.
“I never touched drugs. But it can be on your name,” he said. “That was another huge step in my life. It was a whole different type of beast I never experienced before.
“It changed me a lot, helped me grow as a person. It helped me become a man, watch the people I was hanging around, watch the environment. I don’t have to be out and about in front of people, being the man. It’s going to definitely help me out in the future.”
Passing life’s tests, reaping the rewards
The experience brought him closer to Ohio State assistant head coach/defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who was new to the Buckeyes but stood by him.
“I really believed every word he said, and that’s what happened,” Johnson said Tuesday night by phone. “I’m so glad he turned out the way he did.”
The support paid off when Sprinkle was chosen as a captain before his senior season.
“Sometimes your test is your testimony, and so far Tracy has been through a lot of tests and he’s got a great story to tell,” Johnson said during a call to Tracie to tell her the news.
“That’s how much he means to this team,” Meyer told reporters. “The amount of respect he has earned over the last couple years.”
The captaincy was Sprinkle’s crowning achievement with the Buckeyes — and completed another comeback, this time from a devastating knee injury in the 2016 opener.
Sprinkle earned his first start but didn’t make it through the first quarter before tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee, an injury that ends plenty of careers. He returned to start 12 games in 2017, totaling 16 tackles, three tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry as he took on consistent double teams.
“Tracy didn’t listen to it,” Johnson said of the long odds of a full recovery. “He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He worked overtime. It was very inspirational.
“No matter what adversity he faced, he came out on the other side of it.”
Johnson gushed when describing Sprinkle off the field.
“There are so many things you love about him,” he said. “Big smile, great personality. If I had to say one word: bubbly. Very bubbly. Encouraging. I love Tracy, for all the right reasons. I haven’t been around many people like him.”
Embracing opportunity: ‘My best is ahead of me’
Sprinkle, who earned a bachelor’s degree in family resource management, said he played the season at about 85-90 percent but has fully recovered with some post-season rest. He’s ready to show whatever NFL team wants him that he can be a playmaker.
He played nose guard for the Buckeyes but feels he’s best at the three-technique — a tackle in the 4-3 scheme or end in the 3-4 who line up on the outside shoulder of the guard. He points to his explosion off the ball — he credits strong hips — and ability to create disruption.
“I feel like my best football is still ahead of me,” Sprinkle said. “You only need one team to see it. I’m confident it’s going to happen. My faith is strong.”
Johnson believes Sprinkle can succeed at the next level.
“His body of work has been outstanding,” Johnson said. “He has great movement skills and work ethic and is tough.”
Ohio State center Billy Price, who could be drafted in the first round, cited Sprinkle’s toughness and personality among the reasons he would be a good addition to any organization.
“Taking on the adversity and dominating it, owning it and not running from anything and trying to cover up things,” Price said at OSU’s pro day. “A true man’s man.”
Sprinkle shares his comeback story with kids in visits to schools.
“My message is I want to be the example for them,” he said. “Show them without them having to go through those experiences.
“It was hard stuff to go through, but you can still make it the way I did.”